Last updated: September 2014
A New Hope: Natural Beekeepers
There is a growing apiculture movement, known as ‘natural beekeeping’, that promotes a beecentred approach to hive management: the beekeeper becomes a giver rather than just a taker. The chief proponent of this method is Phillip Chandler, aka the Barefoot Beekeeper. He defines six categories of beekeeping.
1. Honey farming:
production-focused, intensive management of bees for maximum honey yield and/or for migratory pollination.
2. Sideline beekeeping:
a smaller-scale, part-time version of honey farming. The principal aim is profit, but your livelihood may not entirely depend on it.
3. Association beekeeping:
a miniature version of commercial or sideline beekeeping, as promoted and taught by most beekeepers’ associations. Usually the intention is still to produce the maximum amount of honey, but from fewer hives and not necessarily for financial reward.
4. Balanced beekeeping:
the emphasis is on bee welfare and facilitating the natural behaviour of bees. Honey and other bee products only taken when plentiful and appropriate.
5. Natural beekeeping:
similar to ‘balanced beekeeping’, with the emphasis on ‘do-nothing’ approaches. Little or no management is attempted.
6. Conservation beekeeping:
bees for their own sake; no honey is taken and no inspections, treatments or feeding. 
Natural beekeepers report some interesting and hopeful findings:
“Bee colonies foraging on predominantly organically cultivated land, and subject to husbandry orientated by the species specific needs also exhibit better resistance to viruses and parasites. Winter survival rates are far better in colonies that have swarmed and overwintered on their own honey as opposed to sugar water or worse... [and there is] mounting evidence of feral colonies faring better than those kept by beekeepers”.
When bees are allowed to create their own shaped comb, they often create smaller cell sizes, or ‘natural’ sized cells. A number of studies have linked smaller cells to reduced Varroa mite populations. Considering that the Varroa mite has been identified as the biggest single contributor to bee population declines, this observed trend is of paramount importance.
In addition, beekeepers motivated by honey yield will tend to select bees that produce higher yields of honey and are gentle to handle. Through selecting more docile bees, and those that are better honey producers rather than prioritising locally adapted bees, you end up with a bee population that is unsuitable for the local climate and vulnerable to pests. If it wasn’t for beekeepers importing and exporting bees, we may not have ended up with such a prolific problem with an exotic pest – the Varroa mite.
Tim Lovett, the Public Affairs Director for the British Beekeepers Association, says that “a balance needs to be struck between selecting bees for one characteristic and what is best suited to the local climate. A certain feistiness is needed in bees in order to fight off wasps and hornets and be capable of working hard and dealing with bad weather”.
Evidence presented from the natural beekeepers movement suggests that honey should be used as a special treat or medicine, rather than an everyday commodity, in order to reduce demand and create a more sustainable, beecentred honey industry. Sourcing honey from a local beekeeper who practices balanced beekeeping would be the best honey buying option if you care about animal welfare but can’t resist honey.
The Natural Beekeeping website provides a map with contact information of natural beekeeping groups around the UK.